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Barry Humphries: Misunderstood Anarchist of Culture

He was always a step ahead, his mind geared not only for the next move, but the next sequence. He also smelt it, anticipated the audience reaction, shaped the prejudice in context for consumption. He created an antipodean version of dada art. He confused, baffled and enraged audiences with his polymathic, panoramic reach.

The genius of the late Barry Humphries first took root in Britain, along with a flowing of other Australian expatriates who had made Blighty their home. It became evident in Britain’s most famous, remorseless panner of reputation and issue, the satirical magazine Private Eye, that weedkiller of inflated reputations. There, another genius of comedy, Peter Cook, understood a kindred spirit. At Cook’s suggestion, Humphries ran a comic strip that made him famous and eventually found celluloid expression: The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.

The reception of the comic strip in Australia, with its slang-fluent, rough protagonist stomping through the Mother Country, was a foretaste of things to come. Compiled in three book collections, the first two were banned by the Customs Department under the Customs Prohibited Import Regulations. The silly justification was section 4A, which prohibited the importation of works and articles deemed blasphemous, indecent, or obscene, or unduly emphasising matters of sex, horror, violence or crime, or are likely to encourage depravity.

The harebrained nature of this measure, one that could only have been appreciated by Humphries, was that selections from Private Eye, including “Barry McKenzie’s Naughty Night,” were already available in the country in the 1965 publication Penguin Private Eye.

Her Dame Edna Everage (Mrs Norm Everage to some) act, hewn from the dull, insular terrain of Moonee Ponds in Victoria, was always going to be an uneven sell for home audiences. In the sex-suppressed Anglosphere, with its hypocrisies of gender, control and concealment, it was brilliant, a poking, full frontal display of the bigoted housewife giving bigotry a lengthy outing.

The bricks of the mythmakers are now being assembled, an effort to build a mausoleum of deception. Always be suspicious of the “he was much loved by all” tag; they usually have a fair share of aggrieved, envious enemies.

There are, however, clues in the coverage. Humphries was a “comedy export” – read, not palatable in straitlaced, monochrome Australia, a bit too salty, or gamey, for local consumption. He tested his various alter-egos – the barely tolerable Edna, the monstrous, dribbling Sir Les Patterson and so forth – on foreign soil. (Rarely mentioned in tributes is his more complex, rounded character, Sandy Stone.) Contrary to the hagiographically saccharine accounts now clogging news outlets and tributes, Australians did not like what they saw of themselves. The BH treatment was harsh, unsparing, and relentlessly Juvenalian.

With ever increasing notoriety, he would become the target of stock standard accusations. He was unfair to women. He toyed with race. He was insensitive and lacked empathy. None of these viewpoints appreciated Kurt Tucholsky’s observation made in 1919 that satire, in its essence, is unfair: “the just,” goes the Biblical expression, “suffer with the unjust.”

In November 1978, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal criticised Humphries for his “put down of middle-aged women” (Canberra Times, Nov 3, 1978). One irony-free Tina Namow of the Women’s Studies Collective at Flinders University was a case in point, spending time combing through commercials with alleged sexist import. She was delighted to stumble across Dame Edna’s portrayal of women in the Whirlpool advertisements, duly charging the effort as “incompetent”. “To add to the insult, he then makes racist statements such as ‘grubby little foreigner’ during the commercial.”

In 1994, he was criticised by Canberra academic Bill Mandle for being at it again. Dame Edna had become an international figure, no longer a suburban dweller of Moonee Ponds. No distinction is drawn between the artist performer from the individual off the stage and out of the persona. The representation is the artist. “Humphries is relentlessly consistent in his hatreds: women free is a caricature, is a threat. Women must be domesticated and sexually submissive.” This careless misreading is done from the wrong end of the comic impression; it is precisely that received image of woman Dame Edna is mocking, that they, in that macho Australian world, could not be truly free.

In the United States, a country known for small pockets of irony rather than lashings of it, Humphries also found himself in hot water, though it hardly seemed to scald him. The February 2003 issue of Vanity Fair caused much rage. It featured Dame Edna’s views in a satirical column about a reader’s concern about the pressures of learning Spanish. “Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk? The help? Your leaf blower?” Again, we see rigid hypocrisy exposed in the outrage. To satirise society’s divides, the exploitation, and the manipulation, is to invite trouble.

The whole episode certainly puzzled, and depressed, the Pulitzer Prize winner Liz Balmaseda, writing in Hispanic (Mar 2003). “Let’s get this straight (trying to be funny Liz?): It takes one loopy character in ill-fitting garb to rally us into militancy?” Well, yes. She goes on to write in blessed tones about the constructive role played by the Australian performer. “In a way, I’d say God bless Dame Edna. In one swoop, she exposed the worst of the ‘mainstream’ media AND the misguided militancy of its targets.”

For all his exploits, Humphries was also considered too much for the organisers of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2019. (As a measure of cravenness, the organisers have refused to officially mark the passing of a figure that singularly did so much to establish and sustain the event.) The festival’s most prestigious offering, since 2000 named the Barry Award, was scrubbed of the illustrious name. It became, instead, the far more anodyne Melbourne International Comedy Festival Award.

The reason? Remarks made about the transgender movement. “How many different kinds of lavatory can you have?” Humphries rhetorically asked The Spectator in a 2018 interview. “And it’s pretty evil when it’s preached to children by crazy teachers.”

Having stated that transgenderism was “a fashion”, his detractors proceeded to accuse him of not going along with it. That Australian comedian of sorts, Hannah Gadsby, who won the Barry Award in 2017, suggested he loved “those who hold power, hates vulnerable minorities and has completely lost the ability to read the room. That’s not a comedian, that’s an irrelevant, inhumane dick biscuit of the highest order.”



Thankfully, the persistently courageous Miriam Margolyes took issue with the Festival organisers’ decision to cancel the protean dick biscuit, accurately pointing out that he was not “properly appreciated by Australia”, let alone the crony-cringing set at the MICF. “He’d had more talent in his little finger than they did in their whole bodies, all of them.”

The weak response from festival director, Susan Provan, was a model answer from managerial followers of the cancel-culture credo. “Some years ago, the award for most outstanding show was re-named to reinforce the equality and diversity that our Festival community has always championed.” The prerogative of the inclusive is always to exclude.

Ironically enough, the various characters of Humphries are meant to read the room in precisely the way that Gadsby misunderstands. It was a reading that came with an acid bath, the just having to suffer with the unjust. It should never be forgotten that Humphries, in departing, left the landscape a glorious, often misunderstood anarchist of culture.


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  1. Keitha Granville

    I cannot for the life of me understand anyone who failed to laugh at him, with him. Australians are often the race likely to take the proverbial out of anyone, especially themselves – Barry did it in spades, and made us laugh at ourselves.

    We watched a Sandy Stone clip yesterday, and laughed all over again.

    He was incomparable, I shall not see his like again.

  2. New England Cocky

    Vale, Barry Humphries and your family of stage characters, The Dame Edna Everage, Barry McKenzie, Sir Les Patterson, Sandy Stone and other lesser known identities. RIP

  3. Terence Mills

    Humphries used word play to amuse and shock us ; he wasn’t about vilification or discrimination.

    When he explained to Michael Parkinson how son Kenny had come out to his mother (Edna) and told her that he was a homeopath, Edna with a twisted lip added ‘or something like that’. We laughed at him and his malapropism, no more, no less.

    Les Patterson was always out to shock us – he was grotesque, obese and lecherous in his habits and his appearance but he pointed by extreme caricature to ministers in the Joh Bjelke Petersen cabinet to whom we could all relate.

    He once posed the question to an audience in another talkshow :
    ‘do you know what Joan Collins puts behind her ears to attract the men’ ?

    We shall not see or hear his like again – he would be cancelled as he has been by the oddly named Melbourne International Comedy Festival – how we have changed !

    PS : the answer – her ankles !

  4. Roswell

    Was Sir Les Patterson a caricature of Barnaby Joyce, or is Barnaby Joyce a caricature of Sir Les Patterson?

  5. Vincent Berraud

    This article is disgusting. Transphobia is not amusing.

    “Transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault, according to a new study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. In addition, households with a transgender person had higher rates of property victimization than cisgender households.”

    But a bigoted comedian died so let’s put him on a fucking pedestal.

    The author of the article here at the AIMN should never have been allowed to publish a justification of transphobia.

    The AIMN is entirely pointless if it simply becomes another Herald Sun. This was entirely like reading Andrew Bolt.

  6. Max Gross

    Can we just admit that Barry’s time – and savagery – has been and gone?

  7. Clakka

    We needed him then, and since, increasingly so as we lose our wit and sense of irony, to the nonsense of self-importance.

    Vale Barry … you and yours, as you head for the eternity of piss-takers in the tarnished firmament

  8. Canguro

    Sinking VBs here as I digest the context of both the lead essay and its response from readers; with no disrespect to Hanna Gadsby, I’d take Barry Humphries over her any day in terms of output, reach, brilliance, intelligence, wisdom, humanity, wit and sheer unforced genius. As a marker, as if any were required, sheer length of time in the limelight along with ticket sales tells the story. Along with his legion of fans and supporters, of all social echelons.

    In terms of the criticism levelled at Humpries per his supposed bias, criticism, hostility or whatever the secateurs-wearing vanguard upholders of the right to express their adherence to furthering the fight to maintain the existence of the Tall Poppy Syndrome as an almost uniquely Australian phenomenon, I call horseshit and ignorance. To suggest Barry Humphries was transphobic is laughable, and more so considering he spent a large part of his public life in drag.

    As for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s supposed rational response to Humphrie’s supposed bigotry, the less said the better, but piss-weak will suffice and they show their small-mindedness by virtue of that response.

  9. Kerri

    Much is being said about Barry Humphries “irreverant” humour being politically incorrect and far too abusive to too many minority groups and that he should be cancelled for no longer being respectful of our broader community.
    However I would like to point out that Humphries was never as bad as Chris Lilley.
    And yet even though Lilley’s dubious “comedy” was in today’s more aware, less racist, sexist, ableist, bigoted Australia,
    his racist, sexist, ableist, bigoted “comedy” (and I use that term loosely) was widely praised as ground breaking humour.???
    We shouldn’t erase the past. Especially not when wider Australia had the blinkers on during Chris Lilley’s undeserved fame.

  10. Caz

    Oh gawd, when did we lose the ability to laugh at ourselves. This 85 year old appreciated the portrayal of the small minded bigoted society I grew up in . I recognised Edna as my neighbours and was given the opportunity to laugh at their small mindedness, I enjoyed many a belly laugh. And people here and overseas laughed with me. In time to come critics will pass judgement on Hanna Gadsby and I hope they are kinder to her than she is to Humphries. Further away from my home in suburbia, I could recognise Sir Les Paterson in our worse Governor General we had the misfortune to have imposed on us. Vale Barry Humphries.

  11. Denis Bright

    A lovely tribute to the late Barry Humphries, Binoy. The many facets of Barry Humphries enhanced Australia’s national sovereignty. Barry Humphries lives on in our memories as a great Australian patriot who liked to tilt at windmills that deserved a shove as they were relics of an empire that had become rusty and prententious in decline. Now, Australians are expected to cling to another empire that has reached also reached its use-by date. The grim reaper has carried our hero just in time to miss the martial music ahead.

  12. New England Cocky

    @ Vincent Berraud: I am always amazed by the pimply faced hypersensitive reaction from gender confused persons attempting to justify their position in society. They seem to believe that the world has to step aside for them and pander to their personal picadilloes. But let me deal with each point independently:
    1) I dispute the erroneous assertion that Barry Humphries in any of his family of characters, was bigoted. Humorous and always taking the piss, but never bigoted.
    2) Dr Binoy Kampmark is a valued contributor to AIMN and highly respected for his thoughtful contributions. Have you contributed any article to AIMN or only indulged your above petty, thin skinned whinge against societal values?
    3) A Blot lacks the commonsense and necessary journalistic skills to earn a place on this AIMN site.
    4) I cannot label Hannah Gadsby as ”a comedian” because I find her alleged work unfunny and painful to the ear.
    Perhaps these MICF self-important, under-achieving, egomaniacs need to grow up and recognise the genius that was Barry Humphries ….. who gave them the opportunity to display their mediocre allegedly comedic talents at the MICF.
    @ Roswell: Sir Les Patterson could NOT be a caricature of Beetrooter because by comparison, Sir Les is a gentleman rather than an adulterous alcoholic sexually harassing misogynist beloved by Tamworth women.

  13. Katrina

    The sad reality is that Barry Humphries had a life long, deep-seated condescending contempt for Australia and Australians! He hated and was embarrassed by the fact that he was an Australian. Everything he said or did before and during his time as “Edna Everidge” denigrated Australia as a country that, in his opinion, was second-rate and mediocre! Barry Humphries did not want to move beyond his ingrained bias against his country of birth and gave Australia no loyalty, no gratitude nor any justifiable approbation in relation to the fact that not only did Australians contribute so greatly to Humphries’ success, Australia (as a nation) not only grew to be as successful as the UK in every way, it surpassed the UK to become one of the most progressive and successful nations on the planet! Barrie Humphries’ ghastly representation of what he perceived to be an average “Ocker” in Les Patterson is typical of the way he misrepresented his own countrymen providing pompous Brits with plenty of “ammunition” to feed their own inherent prejudices and lack of knowledge about Australia and Australians. The truth is that many Brits suffer with an inherent national inferiority complex when comparisons are made between the UK and Australia or between the UK and America! Yes there are a minority of Les Pattersons out there – as there are in the UK and in every other western nation in the world – however, the huge majority of Australians are well educated, sophisticated, urbane and among the most widely travelled people on the planet! Humphries’ deep seated and unfair prejudices are instilled by his draconian memories of a suburban childhood during the 1950’s – a nation before multiculturalism that simply does not exist any more! Sadly, Humphries chose to ignore the fact that whilst he was living in the UK, Australia grew up and progressed since then. This explains why Humphries was far more popular in the UK than he was in Australia and is probably the reason WHY Barry Humphries chose to live in Britain for decades. However, like so many ex-pat Australians before and since, Humphries returned to Australia in the latter years of his life. Why there are so many Australians who remained so loyal to a man who so openly despised everything about Australia and Australians will remain a mystery!

  14. leefe

    I’m 100% wiith Katrina and Hannah Gadsby.

    It was always clear that Humphries’ characters were taking the piss out of certain aspect of Australia and Australians. Just not in a style I found amusing. Mostly, I found him tedious and far too obvious.


    You wouldn’t be amazed at the “oversensitivity” of certain groups of people if you found yourself being targeted over a basic aspect of yourself that has no effect on anyone else. It’s easy to sneer at what you don’t understand and have never experienced.

    And, by the way, transgender and non-binary people are not “confused”. We know who we are. All we ask is that society allows us to be ourselves. It harms no–one, unlike your crass dismisal of our righht to exist.

  15. Andrew Johnson

    Katrina…. wrong. He didn’t hate Australia at all. His close friend Bruce Beresford recently commented that Humphries had a deep affinity with Australia.
    He was merely sending us up. I respectfully suggest that you lighten up.

  16. Terence Mills


    You are so wrong about Bazza !

    He mocked us but he was one of us and he knew it. He was a man of his times and I never heard him swear on stage despite the opportunites Sir Les offered.

    On the other hand Gadsby and her ilk don’t miss the opportunity to drop an F or C word to shock us.

    I saw Humphries in London where he was playing Fagin in the musical ‘Oliver’ and somebody allowed their mobile to ring and then had the nerve to hold a conversation – Humphries didn’t say a word but his withering look in the direction of the talker said it all.

    I liked him, he made me laugh !

  17. Clakka

    @Leefe. The vast majority of folk in Oz do not deny your right to exist. Neither did Barry Humphries. I give you, as an example, the ever-growing ‘Gay Pride’ festival in Sydney. And the vast majority in Oz are appalled by the attempted cultural invasion of American-style neo-religious evangelistic fascist interferers across the world – a mob now leveraged by big money from corporate fear-mongers and lying grasping fraudulent pseudo-god-heads like the Houstons and Hillsong, and the vicious Scientologists. Along with the ludicrous ‘cancel culture’ sanctimoniousness also appropriated by the unthinking and intolerant.

    @Katrina and Vincent Berraud. I did not concur with Humphrie’s politics, nor was I pleased about his association with the likes of Rupert Murdoch, nevertheless, these matters were largely irrelevant to his craft. As man who knew Humphries closely since his youth, Phillip Adams of ABC RN said, “He was a brilliant and essential Dadaist comedian, who, underlying, was to an extent a troubled man.” And I can observe that underneath the masks, armour and weaponry that we all don knowingly or not, it is universal that there lies a troubled being that we can observe and elect to work with or not, and in this it would appear from within each of us, by the constraints of our knowledge and inevitable blush of our egos, to be absurd and unnecessary to look over our shoulders, add up the score and seek to balance the books.

    To me it seems ludicrous to posture that comedians from all sorts of cultures, who observe, and take the risk that most are afraid to take, to mimic, exaggerate, imbue irony, crudity and thought gymnastics to facilitate us taking a look at ourselves and the world, are somehow unpatriotic, and against us. To the contrary, in the main they are the great and successful educators and amusers. They make us laugh and or cry – our expressions of enlightenment. And this is universal, although often suppressed by the despotic fear-mongering opportunists wielding power. Of course, if one doesn’t like it, one can always ‘turn it off’, walk away and ignore it, as attempts at ‘cancellation’ will ultimately be futile against the interests of the good and inclusive nature.

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